‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Nothing... Well, I was just wondering what you would have done had he not been gay and had actually meant it when he kissed me.’
She turned, casting those blue eyes on him once again, and he couldn’t tell whether she was serious or not.
‘I would have married him off to his first cousin once removed.’
‘A terrible fate, I’m sure.’
Another smile lifted those lips and he felt as if the sun had burst through the clouds.
‘You haven’t met her!’
‘So you have a sense of humour, Your Majesty?’
‘Shh, don’t tell anyone.’
A shadow passed across her features. ‘I remember it. From before our wedding. You would wield it like a sword, cutting through the tension and making me laugh.’
He remembered it too.
‘I used to think...’ She trailed off, as if unsure she should continue.
He held her gaze, held his breath, ridiculously desperate to hear what she’d used to think.
‘I used to think that you were my Prince Charming,’ she said, collapsing into a plush chair in the living room. She looked almost dainty, nestled within the cushions. ‘That you would come and rescue me from my evil father.’
‘I still can, Eloise.’
‘Surely in this day and age a princess should be able to rescue herself, no?’ she asked, and he heard a thread of uncertainty enter her voice, slowly withering him from the inside.
‘You tried that, habibti.’
‘And you found me.’
He took a deep breath. ‘I wouldn’t have. Not without Malik. I still think he only told me because of my father’s death.’ She looked down at her hands. ‘How did you do it?’
‘Manage to convince one of the most loyal men I know to betray me.’
A sad smile covered her features. Almost conciliatory. As if she knew how much that betrayal had hurt. ‘Would it help if I said it wasn’t about you?’
‘That man’s whole life has been about me.’
She sighed. ‘He knew about Jarhan.’
‘Sweet Lord—am I the only one who didn’t?’
‘No,’ she said lightly, almost affectionately. ‘No. But Malik knew because the protection detail knew. It was part of Jarhan’s main concern. That he might give Farrehed’s enemies a weakness in your rule.’
‘But that is not why Malik obtained the passport, Eloise.’
‘No... He followed me after you had told me to leave. Found me. It must have been quite a shock for him. I was throwing things into a suitcase and my father was on speaker phone. I was asking to come home, but he wouldn’t allow it. Said that if I set foot in England he would have my mother transferred to a clinic—that he would bury her under the weight of the world’s press. Ensure that I never saw her again.’
Odir heard the tremor in her voice and could only imagine what her fear must have been like then, on that night.
‘I’ve... I’ve never felt more helpless in my life, Odir. There I was—a princess, wife of a sheikh soon to be a ruler of nations—and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t come to you. I couldn’t go home. Malik cut the phone call, sat me down and made me tell him everything. For five hours we talked about different options and came up with a plan. I asked him. I asked him why he was willing to help me.’
‘Did he tell you?’ Odir asked.
He very much doubted that Malik would have revealed how close to the bone Eloise’s story would have cut him. The only people who knew about Malik’s past were Malik, his family, and Odir.
‘All he said was that so long as he knew where I was, what name I was under, then he would help. Now I see that the person he was helping was you.’
* * *
Eloise knew that she should feel hurt by that realisation. But she didn’t. She was pleased that there was someone who looked out for her husband. The husband who was surrounded by hundreds of people, all ready to serve and protect him, but none to care for him. None to put him first.
His mother’s death had left him adrift, in the hands of a father so cut down by grief he had been jealous of his son’s power. He had mistrusted and distanced himself from the first person he should have been caring for. And, God, did she know how much that hurt.